How can I get a writing job?

I'm a good writer. Everybody says so. So how come other people get hired?

By Cary Tennis

Published April 10, 2008 10:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

The only thing I have ever wanted to do with my life was be a writer. Even when I was a little kid, that's what I told people I wanted to be when I grew up. Well ... here I am, very nearly a grown-up, and I'm still working shitty administrative assistant jobs. Everyone I know says I'm a talented writer and I'll get a great job one day; so then why do I know so many not-so-great writers who have great jobs?

During college, I worked at my student newspaper, but I stuck to the copy desk and column writing because I was scared to interview people. Now, I'm willing to go interview people, but I can't get a job at a newspaper because I have no clips to show them. People tell me to get an internship as a way to get my foot in the door, but most internships are unpaid, and I can't afford to work for free. Often, I'll find a job online that I think I'm capable of, but I can't apply because they ask for multiple work samples and I have no reporting work to show them. Perhaps I could send them something from my blog or from my graduate thesis, but I doubt that's what they're looking for.

To make matters worse, a friend told me to apply for a specific job that she felt sure I could get, and now the editor has dropped off the planet for the past three weeks. It's just heart-wrenching when a job you thought had your name all over it vanishes into thin air.

The thing that makes this so difficult is that I know I can write. I mean, really. I'm no Dostoevski, but I'm damned good, and I am absolutely 100 percent certain that, given the chance, I could make any newspaper or magazine proud. Now that I know it, how do I convince potential employers?


Dear Writer,

There aren't enough writing jobs. There could be. It's not a natural law. If the government supported all writers, then there could be enough writing jobs. All you'd have to do is say, I am a writer, and the government would give you money for food and rent and say, "Bring me writing every day."

Then the government would have to figure out what to do with all the surplus writing. Maybe it would hand out the writing for free off the backs of trucks. But maybe no one would want all that surplus writing because it does not make a sandwich.

So then maybe the government would have to hire surplus readers who would be given money for food and rent and would go to the Big Surplus Writing Room where all the surplus writing was stacked on tables.

It could work that way. Every writer would be employed and read. I'm just saying.

But in our system writing must go into publications that people buy or that advertisers buy space in, or writers don't get money for food and rent.

So writers have to compete.

Competing is a whole separate thing from writing, but if you want to write for a living you have to compete. Look at all the other writers. They want the same thing.

You are competing for the attention and high regard of the person who decides.

So you say to the person who decides, Oh, yeah, that would be really funny, when they say, Wouldn't this be funny? Or if they say, Here's an idea, you say, I like that idea. That idea is a good idea. I would love to write about that idea.

And then they say, Yeah? You want to write this?

And you say, Absolutely.

Not everyone likes the person who says, That would be really funny. Some people like the writer who says, That sounds really dumb. They think that a writer who says, That would be really dumb must have a mind of her own.

But basically what they want is good stuff cheap from somebody who smells good. If you smell good and can give them good stuff cheap they might not like you but they like to get good stuff cheap. Not free. They'll think it's worthless. But cheap. Give them good stuff cheap. Smell good. They'll like that.

The other way is to do the work. If there is an interview do the interview. If the interview subject asks, What publication? say you're freelance. Don't say the name of the publication. The subject will call people at the publication and they will say they've never heard of you. Then it will seem like you made something up. They don't like that. They can be touchy. They think they're important. So be honest: You are freelance.

If you want the interview, be fun. That helps. Famous people who are bored like it if you are fun. They wanted life to be fun so they did fun things and got famous. So if you are fun they may agree to be interviewed by you even if the interview is not for sure going to get published. They might want to "give you a break." Some people are like that.

That way you get clips.

Also: Say yes fast. If the person who hires writers comes out of his cave and says, Who has 500 words on my mother's new play? do not pause to think, What is his mother's name, and what is her play, and is it that play that is not very good? Raise your hand and say, I, sir, have 750 words on your mother's new play, and might I add, sir: Brava!

Then they let you in the gate and the rest of the writers have to stand outside pretending to buy one another drinks. Once inside, you say, I completely lied, and then they beat you, but they are not very strong. They are editors.

That's one way. I'm just saying, you'll look around and you'll see writers saying completely untrue things to get work. And you'll think, those things are completely untrue, why are they saying them? They are saying them to get work. You say that certain books were flawed but interesting. What was interesting about them was their flaws.

You don't have to do this. There are other ways. You can be really, really good. You can find a niche. You can slog it out. But just don't be on your high horse. It's not like they're handing out rewards for talent. It's more like mud wrestling.

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